Farewell to a Force for Good

August 28th, 2009

Since Tuesday, tears have welled up in the vagabond’s eyes with some regularity.  An American long concerned about education, health and welfare (and yes, nutrition) as well as a vast range of human services has left us, demonstrating exemplary courage in his last months.  Senator Ted Kennedy will be buried on Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.  His hard work for forty three years as Massachusetts’ Senator ranged from Bilingual Education programs in 1968 to strengthening the Meals on Wheels program to more effectively provide daily warm meals for shut-ins and senior citizens in 1972.  In that same year, his gargantuan efforts brought into action a nutrition program for disadvantaged Women, Infants and Children (the WIF program). Through the years he fought for cleaner air and water, but Ted Kennedy’s focus was consistently on strengthening social security and providing affordable health services to all citizens. In between chemo-therapy sessions for terminal brain cancer, he went to Washington in July 2008 to cast his vote, freeing important Medicare legislation from gridlock.  The determination, the voice of this “Lion of the Senate” was legendary:  he was truly a force for good.

Garlic, a southern icon

August 25th, 2009

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Isolate the key flavors, the products of southern France, and the list looks something like this:  olives, olive oil, lemons, tomatoes, bell peppers and pimento, almonds and pistachios, anchovies, and of course, garlic.  Scan all countries ringing the Mediterranean Sea to find only slight variations on this lineup.  So, which kind of garlic do southern cooks choose and use most? Once dried, braided and strung up, the pink garlic of Lautrec keeps longer, while the white – almost sweet - allium sativum of Beaumont de Lomagne in Gascony is the juicy choice during summer and early autumn.  By the first of November, bitter, green sprouts appear inside this variety, indicating it is ready for planting in the next round, to be harvested early the following July.  In the same rhythm, for about a thousand years garlic has been cultivated in southern Europe – but jump back 6,000 years to trace cultivated garlic in Egypt and India. This powerful allium, noted in Sanskrit medical treatises from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D., was devoted to use as an antifungal, antiseptic and cleansing agent.  The upper classes never ate garlic, as was true of Brahmins, the clergy and upper classes around the Mediterranean for centuries:  it was a peasant ingredient relegated to cucina di povera.

How things have changed since the 1940′s, when garlic was embraced as a flavorful element by popular opinion, gradually making inroads into haute cuisine.  Fast forward to the second half of the twentieth century, when gastronomic sights were set on southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and into the twenty-first as “fresh and healthful” became each cook’s mantra. Meanwhile, the “peasant cooking” of Europe that included garlic and other hefty ingredients has come into the spotlight. It is hard to imagine an Andalusian gazpacho, a Greek skordalia, or even Polish dill pickles without  garlic to enhance the punch of flavors….and don’t ignore this season’s vibrant blend of garlic, basil and nuts: pesto.  To crush or to cook is your choice.  When garlic is cooked, the hot sensation and odors of allicin disappear, and the edge of raw garlic mellows. With this in mind, Sicilian cooks rarely or never use garlic raw, but prefer the deeper flavors of the cooked buds.  But what about haleine (bad breath)?  Avoiding garlic breath doesn’t seem to be a concern when everyone else is eating garlic – as the vagabond has noted in Gascony and the Languedoc.  More refined tastes and sensitive noses may beg to differ, as the situation varies.  Planning to meet with your lawyer after lunch?  He has probably just had garlic-infused sausages and pasta tossed with pungent pesto on his plate.

All these comments aside, how can you best keep the savory garlic on hand for a quick tzadziki salad or to rub onto a lamb chop? Preserving buds in olive oil is good for a week – at most. After that, unwelcome bacterial growth is a distinct possibility. For longer term use, I like to pop garlic cloves into a small jar of sherry vinegar to keep in the fridge, and seldom buy more than two heads at a time.  In eastern Europe, young bulbs and shoots are pickled as a condiment. Baking whole heads of garlic with a roast chicken is reserved for a special event, and each person has a small spoon to scoop out the sweet soft – very mellow – garlic. Whether you crush or cook garlic, you’ll be doing yourself a favor – it boosts the immune system, acts as a stimulant to digestion, and enhances flavors of whatever it is mixed with, especially the other other sun-drenched icons of Mediterranean cuisine.

Note: There are over 300 varieties of garlic, so if you are interested in planting your own, refer to www.2sistersgarlic.com/varieties.htm for details.

Préfou: new garlic & Charente butter

August 21st, 2009

Did the vagabond expect to munch on divine garlic bread in western France?  No, but why not – then again, the egg-rich Brioche Vendéen bread is so much better known.  The cuisine of the Poitou Charente and Vendée regions seldom is given more than passing mention in guidebooks.  Usually it is the stuffed vegetables of the Poitou, the slick and mellow Charente butter, or matelote (eels cooked in wine with herbs – don’t ask), mojette beans, and melon cubes dripping with Pineau des Charentes that make up a short list of  regional specialties.  References to préfou are rare, even on menus posted outside cafés; no recipes are found on the net or in old, reliable cookbooks.  But there they were, a few crisp strips of garlic-soaked toast on my Salade Maraîchier plate in the charming Charente village of Arçais.  So very good, so easy to replicate, it seemed.  Back in my kitchen on the hill, the urge to try making a batch of préfou was too hard to resist.

In days gone by, before baking many loaves in the four à pain, a lump of dough was pinched off, patted flat and popped into the oven to test the temperature.  Préfour (four is oven in French) then would be pre-baking, as my best guess at the etymology for préfou. In the lower Vendée, along the Charente border, the custom was to rub the warm bread with a clove of  garlic and spread it with freshly churned butter. A glass of the crisp, local white wine or a sip of eau de vie would go down nicely with this humble treat, as one could imagine.

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A wedge of fresh butter, plump garlic, and bread ready for préfou!

The bread for the simple garlic and butter-soaked wonder begins with a basic  fougasse dough (for this batch, I used 500 ml/2 cups potato water seasoned with a bay leaf, 450 g./4 cups bread flour (spoon flour into cup, tap and level), a pinch of salt and 1/2 tsp. dry yeast, and oiled hands to shape the dough – use directions in the (12 June 2009) fougasse post – and let it rise overnight).  Instead of an oval or leaf, shape it in a rectangle on a baking sheet and slit at 2 inch intervals, making the préfou fingers easier to separate after baking. The above proportions make enough dough for 1 préfou and 1 small loaf of bread. You may need more flour, depending on the humidity of the day and type of flour used. Sprinkle fine cornmeal under the  préfou and a little over the top. Heat the oven to 220°c./425°f., place the pans in the oven and spray with spritzes of water, then turn the heat down to 200°c/400°f. and bake for 12 minutes.  The following day, slice the préfou horizontally, separate the fingers of bread, spread each piece with a mixture of crushed, juicy new garlic mixed with soft butter, and put the fingers back together. Wrap in foil, and at this point, let it rest for a couple of hours or overnight, then heat it in a warm oven (or over the coals of a grill) to melt the butter. Clearly, this is best made ahead of time. Tradition says:  serve with apéritifs. But préfou goes well with a green salad or cold soup on blisteringly hot summer days.  After my  first encounter with préfou, I anticipate serving it as a garlicky side with a dish of mojettes jambon …..as the season turns – and September, the moment for shelling mojettes, is just around the corner.

The coast or the market – do I have to choose?

August 13th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand West Coast Escapade

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With just a few days in La Rochelle, options are many and time is tight.  So, the coast comes first:  find a rental car and zip north – within an hour the fishing rigs and mussel beds of Esnandes and Charron on the Atlantic coast are in sight.  There’s not much action in the morning, but after lunch as the tide creeps in the cabins on stilts fill with fishermen, preparing for a catch, checking their nets to lower for scoops of sole and shrimp.  Take a deep breath of sea air and hike out to the Point of St-Clément for a spectacular view across the mouth of Aiguillon Bay before heading back into Esnandes for a tour of the Maison de la Mytliculture (displays about mussel production in the region).  This is on the edge of town, facing the Romanesque church, a good place for a pause or picnic lunch.

Another day, back in the city of La Rochelle, a morning walk to the 19th century market hall (just follow the signs and arrows at intersections in the old part of town to Marché XIX) immerses you in a wonderland of seasonal produce – and fish.  An aisle stretching the length of the building is devoted to fish and shellfish, a great starter for translating menus later in the day, in fact the vagabond always seems to find another fish to add to the list – in this case, all sorts of poisson from Atlantic waters. Wander the aisles filled with shoppers, chatting with their cheese vendors (tempting chèvre of all sizes and stages of ripeness), choosing poultry and sausages, or specifying just which cut of lamb they need for a navarin.  La Rochelle’s market, like so many others in France, has a Portuguese épicerie, stocking specialties like piri piri (a zippy hot sauce) and miniature, freshly baked pasteis tarts. Even though a couple of these frequently wind up in the vagabond’s basket, there will be buttery croissants waiting at one of the many cafés lining streets around La Rochelle’s old market.  And there is always time for a café au lait or espresso, non?

Sunflowers and sea breezes

August 7th, 2009

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With dreams of strolling along the sea, the vagabond was eager to adjust to a slower pace and explore the ports of La Rochelle.  Anticipation grew during the two hour train ride from Bordeaux, a route passing through woodlands, pastures and broad fields of wheat and sunflowers. The region, Charente Maritime, is wedged along France’s Atlantic coast above Bordeaux’s Médoc vineyards and below the flat fields of the Vendée. For centuries, the hub city of La Rochelle has been a crossroads  of commerce, culture and politics – all evident in the city’s diverse architecture, bearing traces of wars and conflict. The first destination was a long walk on La Rochelle’s ramparts, and though it was a very hot Sunday afternoon, a cool edge on the Atlantic breeze perked up a tired traveler.  It was not difficult to imagine schooners loaded with spices, cotton, and strange New World products approaching this deep-draught port. I could also picture carts hauling trunks to be loaded

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onto immigrant ships carrying Huguenot Protestants, about to embark for North American shores.  I am sure that they tucked in an accordian or fiddle,  grandmother’s recipes, the family Bible – and dreams of a new life.

Towers still mark La Rochelle’s harbor on the Bay of Biscay, but pleasure boats of all sizes – cruising in to shop or to dine well – have replaced frigates and schooners of times past.  Plenty of boutiques line streets of the old town and choosing which café or restaurant offers the best Moules Marininières can be a confusing menu-study game. A steaming bowl of  Moules de Bouchot (mussels grown on a post) a dish of plump shellfish in a rich saffron sauce, was the vagabond’s choice of starter at Restaurant 4 Sergents.  The professional serving staff scurried between 90 places in this unusual setting, an early nineteenth century open-court building. The thick, leather bound winelist offered a good sampling of regional wines:  we chose a pleasant Orfeo, a 2005 merlot made less than an hour away from La Rochelle near the town of Vix.  To sum up the dining experience, it is on my list of  “must return in another season” destinations on the Atlantic coast.  In fact, the list of reasons for a repeat visit ranges beyond the restaurants, the spotless market hall packed with fish, cheese, chickens, meat and bread specialties, to museums and galleries worth a second look. There is much more to explore in the Charente..watch for market details and photos next week.

Traveler’s note: Reserve a table a day in advance at Restaurant 4 Sergents at 49, rue Saint-Jean, La Rochelle. Tel. 05 46 41 35 80.  Inviting menus change with the seasons.

Coming up in August:  Making fresh cheese, a recipe for Préfou from Arçais, and simmering cherry tomato chutney.